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B.E.C. at P.S.M.

Andrew Nichols sends us this account of the recent trip to the Pyrenees.  He also sent a covering letter which promises more accounts from some of the others who went on this expedition.

For the last three years, Andy Nichols has trundled his way South to the Basses Pyrenees, there to fester not ten miles from some really difficult caves, as a recovery from ever sillier exams.  This year he was joined by Malcolm Jarrett, Sue Holmes, John Dukes, Graham Wilton-Jones and a canvas mansion full of Palmers; nominally as guests of the Cambridge University Caving Club - though the last of them left a couple of days after we arrived, deciding the superb weather was far too good to spend anywhere but at the seaside.

We arrived on the 15th August and stayed until the end of the month at our usual riverside campsite at Licq-Atherey.  By the 17th, even Andy had recovered from the trauma of arrival and he showed Malcolm, Sue and John around Betzulako Harpia, a cave high above the Col d'Erroimendi - pushed over the years by C.U.C.C. to the respectable length of 4 kilometres and notable for some excellent formations; the perfectly preserved claw marks of cave bears who climb fifty foot pitches, and lots of loose rocks.

The following day Andy, John and Malcolm struggled up a nearby mountain, with C.U.C.C's Mike Perryman, to descend Betchenkako Lezia.  Further up the mountain is the Gouffre d'Aphanices, discovered in 1972 and with three big pitches followed by a monstrous one of 328 metres (1,076 ft.) – wet!  Betchenka is much milder, with 180ft entrance followed by a series of vast chambers - an enjoyable trip which gripped John's imagination so much that he will deal with it in a separate report.

On Monday 19th, we festered.  A hotel in nearby Tardets burnt down, which whiled away the afternoon until Mike and Pat arrived with their children and Graham.  Tuesday saw us at the Col d’Erroimendi again to complete the exploration of Baratchegagnako Harpia, a task left for Andy by C.U.C.C.  He, John, Graham Malcolm and Sue were joined by Steve Dickenson (Dickie, staying on after a joint E.P.C. - U.L.S.A. push in the Pierre.  Baratchegagna is a dreadful cave, only 400 feet deep but formed entirely in one strongly shaled bed of rock which may look like limestone but which has the strength of wet cardboard.  Great sheets of it peeled off wherever we went.   Fortunately, the three points to investigate all linked up again with the series discovered the year before, and only one was of any length, a few hundred feet of shattered rift found by Dickie.  It led to a substantial chamber with two pitches of 35 feet leading off, which he and Andy descended to confirm the link with the lower series.  The length of new passage amounted to some 400 feet, leaving no possibilities for extension, so we fought our way out through the rain of boulders and went back to Lucq.

The 21st provided us with genuine rain.  We went for a walk up the Ehujarre gorge from Ste Engrace, a very silly business where Andy proved to be the only person without a cagoule and kept moaning like a demented Yeti about how wet he was.  Thursday was overcast but drier, so the whole party assembled at the Relais de la P.S.M. for a walk which took in the Lepineux and Tete Sauvage entrances to the Pierre, plus the Pic d'Atlas, which at 2,064 m (6,772ft) gave us some incredible views of the miles of barren lapiaz through the holes in the cloud below us.  During the walk the party came across two crates of unopened bottles of wine left ('abandoned' was the legal opinion) in a grassy patch in the clints.  Six B.E.C. members collapsed in a faint on the spot but, with admirable self-control, limited themselves to 'borrowing' only a litre which ended up empty after a couple of hundred yards.

Sad to say, a few miles later, three of the six sneaked off into the mist again in the direction of the bottles "just to see if they're still there, you understand. We wouldn't want anything to happen to them, would we?"  Nothing had. John, Malcolm and Andy went into a huddle and decided that nobody would mind if we went back with a bottle each in our pockets, but we were the B.E.C.

Local shepherds must have been surprised to see John ambling down the track to the relais, whistling nonchalantly, then hear him galloping away every time the mist swirled back and pretending to be a Pyrenean sheep in a hurry.  Behind him, Andy and Malcolm lurched about in the fog, carrying something that rattled and bumped.

"Hey, Stop!  What's that noise?  Not another bloody shepherd?"

"What noise?"

"Shhh….There it goes again!  Shall we run?"

 "Oh, that!  My guts again! - better carry on!"

…….lurch, rattle, totter………..

“Christ, this crate's heavy!  I must have a rest!"

“Well, we've got fifteen bottles in it.  'Course it's heavy!"

“Let’s drink another one now.  Make it a bit lighter."

A grinding of gears comes out of the mist, and Andy and Malc drop the crate in a panic and leap off the roadside to hide in a hole in the clints, listening for "We are the Exploration Club" played on a sheep bell which would indicate the return of John in the getaway car.  But this is only another shepherd's car.  Andy and Malc manage to find the crate again and pick it up, cursing. Eventually they reach the relais and creep forward to see what has gone wrong.

In true B.E.C. tradition, the getaway car has broken down.  A flat battery between us and the biggest wine haul in history.  In the end, we just load the crate in and it rattles so much as we bump-start John's car down 4,000ft of hill that every gendarme between the relais and Pau must have heard us.  Cunningly, we avoid them by going straight to the nearest hostelry.

On the 23rd, the weather changed, and in the whole party walked off up the extremely impressive Kakouetta Gorge from Ste Engrace to a point where the path ran out and the heat, the dust and the flies became too much.

"Of course, you can't get up the 100 ft cliffs at the end without pegs and etriers", the little man at the cafe assured us.

"Nonsense!  We'll find a way up if it takes all day!" said Mike, Graham, Steve and Malc. They did, and it was desperate - and it took all day.

"So what? "said Pat, Andy, John and Sue. "We're going back."  And that didn't take any time at all!

The weather was equally good the next day, so we went for a short walk up the Holzarte Gorge, the neighbour to the Kakouetta.  The highpoint was the suspension bridge across it which might have been designed by Brunel after the pub, and looked as if it hadn't been maintained since.  A good four hundred feet up, it was - and vibrated to the lightest step of the smallest Palmer.  Some walked slowly across; some shuffled uneasily, wishing they hadn't eaten sardines and raw onions for lunch; Malcolm pounded across it like a rampaging elephant, bellowing, "Don't panic!" at every bounce.

On Sunday, 25th everyone went up to the E.D.F. Hut, as Andy had negotiated a trip in the P.S.M. via Ruben Gomez and Doninique Prebende.  Entry was by the E.D.F. tunnel to the Salle Verna, the second largest chamber in the world.  The non-cavers (Pat, the two children and Steve) followed us a short distance up the streamway before being conducted back to the entrance.  Is Miss K. Palmer, at 5 years old, the youngest person ever to have been in the deepest cave in the world?  The remaining six then set off back upstream towards the foot of the Lapineux shaft and the memorial to Loubens - but we'd left it too late starting and were able to get no further than the traverse above the Salle Chevalier before time turned us back.

That evening was also marked by a birthday party, or rather by its beginning, since the nearby town of Tardets was 'en fete' all week and allowed several of us to stagger round with the level of blood in our alcohol systems reduced to normal Mendip level for days on end.

Monday was occupied again by Betchenkako Lezia where John, Malcolm, Sue, Andy and Graham had an enjoyable trip which took in all the known cave, estimated as some three kilometres with a maximum depth of 130 metres (426ft).

Tuesday was a fester day for all of us, combined with a trip to Oloron Ste Marie to borrow pitons for Wednesday's epic climb.

The climb, led by Mike and John, supported by Malcolm Sue and Graham, was to recover a maypole in the Grotte de la Stalactite Deviee, a short dry and well-decorated cave next to the great cascade resurgence in the Kakouetta Gorge. The resurgence is a major one, possibly for Anialarra, and the maypole had been used in an unsuccessful attempt to by-pass the fifth sump behind the cascade itself.  To recover it, an 18m (60ft) overhanging pitch had to be pegged all the way.  Bolts, which might have eased the problem, were unobtainable and after five hours our heroes were just over a third of the way up.

The following day, the same team minus Mike and Sue climbed another five metres (16ft), but had to abandon the job through lack of time and bolts.  Two pitons shattered in use, which didn't help.  So the maypole is still there and the passage it was used to reach is still un-entered.

Thursday was the last day.  Mike, Steve and Andy crawl up a small but ludicrously steep mountain which overhung Licq and had to be climbed if only for the name - Le Chapeau du Gendarme. Later, Mike, Pat and Andy took advantage of the cloudless sky to revisit the relais and photograph the lapiaz, followed by John, Malcolm and Graham after they had removed all the tackle from La Stalactite Deviee.  Then everyone went to the hotel at Lanne for a meal and an evening on the alcohol.  Or perhaps that was the evening before?  Or did we stay in Licq that evening?  The trouble with these week-long birthdays is that they make everything damnably confusing.  Anyway, wherever we went, the white crème de Menthe fairly flowed!  And on Friday 30th August, we left for England.